Expert Commentary

Escaping affect: How motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering

2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on levels of compassion for large groups of people in need.

The need to “put a face” on a humanitarian crisis and give it individual particularity is premised on a well-established phenomenon: As the numbers of a group experiencing suffering increases, the level of compassion felt for that group typically decreases. However, the mechanism behind this apparently counterintuitive dynamic — declining compassion as the level of suffering increases — has long resisted understanding.

A 2011 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Georgia State University published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering,” used three experiments to measure the collapse of compassion felt toward a group’s suffering under different emotional conditions. In contrast to previous theories suggesting humans are simply not “tuned” to respond proportionately to mass suffering, the study’s authors construct “an alternative account of the collapse of compassion.”

The study’s findings include:

  • When subjects weren’t asked to donate aid money, they experienced more compassion toward suffering groups than suffering individuals. This suggests that self-interest can play a role when compassion decreases.
  • Subjects who were naturally better at regulating their emotions showed a greater decrease in compassion for suffering groups (as compared with individuals) than did subjects with poor emotion regulation. This suggests that active regulation of inner sympathy is at work in the phenomenon.
  • Subjects who were explicitly instructed to regulate their emotions showed more compassion toward a suffering individual than a group. However, subjects who were allowed to experience their emotions fully showed increasing compassion over time for single and multiple victims.
  • There does not seem to be a finite amount of sympathy that is necessarily exhausted: “Rather than people desiring to help [others] based upon how much compassion they felt, people in our studies let themselves feel compassion based on whether or not they desired to help.”

The researchers conclude that the “collapse of compassion is not simply a functional limit on how much emotion people can feel for others. Rather, active self-regulation may be required to stifle the moral impulse toward multiple victims in the service of self-interest. With enough effort and skill, many manage to make statistics of people.”

Tags: disasters, ethics, poverty, psychology, cognition, genocide, philanthropy

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